Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett on Thursday said Likud MK Oren Hazan was unfit to serve in in public office, after a judge determined the scandal-plagued lawmaker took hard drugs prior to his election to the Knesset.
Judge Azaria Alcalay ruled Tuesday that a 2015 investigative TV report alleging Hazan had hired prostitutes for his friends and taken crystal meth in 2013 while managing a casino in Bulgaria amounted to “responsible, serious journalism and reflected the reality as it was.”
“This is not an affair that honors the Knesset of Israel or the public’s trust in elected officials,” Bennett told Army Radio. “I believe that Knesset members should serve as an example.”
While calls for the freshman lawmaker to step down or be investigated have proliferated in the opposition and among backbench MKs, Bennett became the first senior government official to call for Hazan’s ouster, as he also chided Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not taking action against Hazan.
“As public officials, I believe that we must disassociate ourselves from individuals who were determined to have committed immoral acts that are illegal in Israel,” he said, calling on Netanyahu to rethink whether Hazan should be able to continue to serve in the Knesset.
“The law doesn’t allow us to force him [to resign] because no criminal offenses were committed in Israel, but it is the responsibility of the head of the party to deal with this issue,” he said.
Though Bennett said he would refrain from giving Netanyahu advice, he said the details of Hazan’s conduct confirmed by the Tuesday ruling “should be a red flag to all of us.”
“This is not the kind of standard we want to set, especially for young people who look up us,” he said.
Despite being the head of senior coalition partner Jewish Home, Bennett has often sparred with Netanyahu and has been quick to criticize the prime minister over a litany of issues, including most recently the government’s failure to deal with the Hamas tunnel threat emanating from Gaza.
In the Army Radio interview Thursday, Bennett reiterated his stance and said Netanyahu should have acted more decisively against the threat, ahead of the publication of a state comptroller report said to find serious failings in the state’s handling of the issue.
Hazan — whose previous behavior led to his removal from Knesset panels by both the Knesset Ethics Committee and his own party — had sought NIS 1 million (some $260,000) in damages from Channel 2 reporter Amit Segal, claiming a June 2015 report detailing tawdry and illicit activities by Hazan when he managed a Bulgarian casino in 2013 was false and constituted libel.
Segal cited two Israeli tourists and a casino employee who affirmed that Hazan provided prostitutes for his guests in the Burgas casino, in which he held a stake. Both prostitution and hard-drug use are illegal in Bulgaria.
On Tuesday, Judge Alcalay said that evidence brought before the court by two witnesses, named in the ruling as Eviatar and Avi, proved that Hazan had indeed taken crystal meth. He said that it could not be proved that Hazan provided prostitutes to friends or customers of the casino but that he was convinced Segal had sufficient evidence to be protected under freedom of the press.
“I believed the testimony of Eviatar and Avi over that of the plaintiff — who completely denied that he had taken drugs, just as he denied he any connection to the casino — after it was clear that he had given false testimony on other issues,” Alcalay wrote in his decision.
The court, however, accepted Hazan’s complaint that Channel 2 was wrong to report he has sold hard drugs, a detail that only appeared on the outlet’s Mako website and not in the initial report. Channel 2 was ordered to pay Hazan NIS 40,000 in damages.
Hazan, an outspoken lawmaker whose indecorous behavior has invited criticism and calls for him to step down in the past, denied the allegations at the time of the report and declared that he had “been victorious” following the libel suit ruling.
In December, the Knesset Ethics Committee suspended Hazan from participating in parliamentary debates for a month, due to a series of complaints against him.
In February, Hazan was again suspended from the committee hearings, this time by his own Likud party after he skipped a plenum vote resulting in a loss for the party.
And a 2015 state comptroller report on party spending during primary campaigns said Hazan failed to report his expenditure and accused him of lying in an affidavit declaring his expenses, a crime that can carry up to a three-year custodial sentence.
He was also roundly criticized by fellow lawmakers for appearing to mock a disabled MK, Karin Elharar, from the Knesset floor during a December plenum vote.
Raoul Wootliff and Marissa Newman contributed to this report.